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Can Language Protect Us During a Pandemic?

Can Language Protect Us During a Pandemic?

From “social distancing” and “super spreaders” to “locktail hour” and “caremongering”, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated people’s continued creative engagement with language. The development of a new vocabulary – either through an invention of new terminology or the repurposing of existing terms – are helping people both laugh and come to terms with the effects of the pandemic.

Toni Morrison, a pioneering African-American novelist who received a Nobel Prize in Literature, said of language in her Nobel lecture, “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names” and “Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency – as an act with consequences”. While Morrison never got to witness the pandemic – she died in August 2019 – her words could perhaps give us some guidance towards how language can protect us. Or more accurately, how we can exercise our agency in using language to protect ourselves and our communities in times of strife.

How do we use language to protect ourselves and our communities?

The remarkable thing about languages is that they are not passive. Even as we use and coin new expressions and share them with our networks, our languages adapt and respond. In this sense, we possess agency in the use of languages. Hence, we can view language as a very useful tool that can help support and protect us and our communities especially in extraordinary and challenging times.

1. Language helps us make sense of an uncertain situation
Having and being able to use a new set of relevant vocabulary help us make sense of an unfolding crisis. We are all having to deal with sudden and drastic changes in many areas of our lives brought about by the pandemic. Having the vocabulary to describe these changes to our lives will help us understand what is happening.

2. Language allows us to articulate our worries to others
When something new happens, we might not yet have the language to name it. Once we can name the event, as well as the practices and social conditions around a particular occurrence, this will give people a shared vocabulary. We can then talk to other people about what is going on. And when we can talk about it, we can begin to understand and cope with the difficult situation.

3. Language lets us be creative and engage in verbal play
Some studies have shown that teenage girls are among some of the most adept groups at inventing new words, phrases and slang. This shows that we as humans like to play with language and linguistic creativity is very much a natural part of how we use language. In these times when we are desperate for a joke, new covid-speak such as “covidiots” and “quarantinis” give us a laugh.

4. Language brings people together
In these times of social distancing and travel controls, many of us have reduced social contact with others including our loved ones and friends. The new vocabulary gives us collective cultural reference points. In the absence of physical meetings, the creation of a new set of vocabulary acts as a glue that connects us over physical barriers. This connection helps us look out for each other, and fulfil our roles as each other’s keepers.

Evolution of language during Covid-19
One of the biggest reasons for the speed at which coronavirus-related terminology has spread is the high level of digital connectivity around the world. We can now coin a new term and share it widely beyond our local physical networks. At a time when we have to adopt social distancing and reduce social contact, remote contact and social media have become more important than ever.

Google Trends illustrates the growing in popularity of some of these covid-isms. For instance, the term “covidiot” is newly invented for this pandemic to mean someone who ignores public health and safety warnings. The search interest for “covidiot” spiked up from zero (as it is a new word) to peak towards the end of March. This could perhaps be explained by the widespread sharing of memes that showed people who were out partying in large groups or who were out protesting lockdowns even as the death toll from the coronavirus climbed.

In contrast, “face mask” is a pre-existing term. The importance of face masks as part of the life-saving PPEs during this pandemic is illustrated by the search interest trend in Google Trends. The search interest has been on an upward trend since the beginning of the year, peaking at around April. After a slight decline, the search interest has climbed again from the middle of June. This perhaps correlates with more governments around the world advising their people to wear face masks while out in public, or in some cases, making it mandatory.


What language strategies can we learn from Covid-19?
As the use of language continues to evolve in response to the impact of the pandemic, we are learning about language strategies that could help protect everyone in the community. There are also calls to be aware of how we use language and to reframe language so as to enable compassionate and effective public co-operation.

Language strategy #1: Prioritise minority languages
Language barriers could put certain sections of the community at greater risk during a health crisis. This would appear to be a case of stating the obvious. However, it is not unusual for the needs of minority language speakers to be ignored during a crisis, especially if those languages are not usually prioritised in normal times.

In many countries with a multilingual profile, there are parts of the country where minority languages are more dominant than the official language. In such places, residents of that region would be better able to receive important information and instructions about a health crisis if information is given in that minority language.

Experts note that for speakers of minority languages, the official language tends to be a learned language. In extreme situations, people may forget their learned language. Therefore, for certain segments of society, particularly the elderly, it is important for information to be communicated in the languages that they are most comfortable in.

What happens when minority languages are ignored?
The worst-feared outcomes could occur when language needs of minority language-speakers are not addressed. In the United Kingdom, researchers and statisticians are puzzled by the higher-than-average Covid-19 death rate that occurred in the Midlands. Various factors are looked at and debated including deprivation, pre-existing inequalities and ethnicity. Although there are no definitive conclusions for now, language barriers has emerged as a likely factor among certain minority communities. Commentators postulate that language barriers prevent some people from understanding the severity of the disease, and so official recommendations such as social distancing are not observed until slightly later. Language barriers may also hinder people from accessing health services.

Case study: linguistic disaster preparedness in Wuhan
When the outbreak of Covid-19 occurred in Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak in China, resources from across the country were mobilised to assist Hubei. One of the difficulties that trans-provincial health workers encountered is the language barrier with patients. Linguistic professionals produced a handbook and audio materials on Wuhan’s dialect within 48 hours after the team arrived in Wuhan.

The handbook includes more than 70 sentences and 150+ words commonly used in diagnosis and treatment. The handbook was then expanded to encompass other Hubei dialects including those of Xiangyang, Yichang, Huangshi, Jingzhou, E’zhou, Xiaogan, Huanggang, and Xianning. Within a matter of days, the team managed to provide these language services across different formats, including a dedicated webpage, videos, TikTok, a telephone hotline and instant translation software. The handbook has proved to be very useful for frontline health workers, and is being updated and expanded to include different languages.

This is an example of a responsive prioritisation of minority languages in the midst of a public emergency. While Putonghua or Mandarin is the official language in China, frontline workers quickly recognised how much more comfortable patients are communicating in their local dialects and hence prioritised linguistic efforts to communicate across language barriers.

Language strategy #2: Reframe war metaphors

War and battle metaphors are commonly used by politicians and leaders in this pandemic. For instance, American President Donald Trump describes himself as a *war-time president” fighting against an invisible enemy. Meanwhile, António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, declares that “this war needs a war-time plan to fight it”. The use of war metaphors can be compelling as they can build unity and appeal to citizens’ sense of duty and obligation.

However, the use of battle metaphors has been criticised. When the UK prime minister was hospitalised with coronavirus, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said he’s confident that Johnson will pull through because “he’s a fighter”. This puts the onus on the ill the responsibility for getting well, and implies that patients who did not recover from Covid-19 did not have sufficient fight.

The use of war metaphors might also distort things about the pandemic. For instance, political, economic and cultural contexts make certain segments of communities more vulnerable to the pandemic. These contextual factors might be ignored amidst the use of war-related grand narratives. In another example, when health workers are applauded for being “heroes” who are going into battle against the virus, it masks administrative and political problems in some countries that cause many healthcare workers to go to work without proper or sufficient PPEs. Instead, health workers should be seen as individuals (often stressed and frightened individuals) doing a job, who need sufficient protective equipment.

Alternatives to war metaphors
There are alternative ways that leaders can communicate the severity of the situation without resorting to war metaphors. In Germany, leaders and politicians tend to avoid using conflict imagery. This might be due to historical reasons and the impression that both national and international audiences might not be comfortable with German leaders speaking about war, even if in a figurative sense. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, favours direct and straightforward language and uses few metaphors. She speaks about a “great challenge”, “serious times”, a “historical task”. Her sober approach is echoed by other political leaders in Germany.

Another alternative approach has emerged with the use of journey metaphors. Raab thanked the public for “going the extra mile” and said that “we must keep going”. Journey metaphors imply public co-operation and an attempt to bring people along with us.

Finding solutions to the pandemic is a shared responsibility and the solution should be based on global co-operation. It is therefore better to promote language that encourages solidarity and civil responsibility rather than a warfare mindset.
Covid-isms: words/ phrases/ abbreviations invented or repurposed for the Covid-19 pandemic

Social distancing: keeping away from other people as much as possible, or maintaining a certain physical distance from other people, in order to reduce the risk of a disease spreading to a lot of people.

Super spreader: someone who is infected with a virus or disease and who transmits it to an unusually large number of other people.

the ‘rona’: a name for coronavirus or Covid-19.

Covidiot: someone who annoys others by refusing to obey public health and safety rules designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Flattening the curve: slowing the spread of the virus so that the peak number of patients is reduced and the healthcare system is not overwhelmed.

Caremongering: a movement encouraging acts of kindness and altruism, especially to help vulnerable people in the community. As opposed to scaremongering.

PPEs: personal protective equipment, including protective clothing, helmets, goggles, or other garments or equipment designed to protect the wearer's body from injury or infection. During the pandemic, PPEs frequently refers to gloves, masks and gowns worn by people at risk of infection.

WFH: work from home, a common occurrence during lockdowns.

Zoombombing: the act of joining a call uninvited on Zoom, the video conferencing service, with the purpose of disrupting the call.

Doomscrolling: obsessively reading social media posts or checking the internet for news about a bad situation.

Quarantini: A cocktail you make for yourself and drink at home during quarantine or imposed isolation.

Locktail hour: cocktail hour during lockdown, or a time when you drink quarantinis perhaps while on a video call with friends.

What are your favourite covid-isms? Comment below and let us know.

If you want to learn more about how you can use PPEs to protect yourself and your community, visit us at